A Sampler of Uncommon Fruits
Hardy kiwifruits are but one of a number of uncommon fruits grown by innovative gardeners and farmers. Here's a tasty sampling from Lee Reich's book, Uncommon Fruits. All can be grown in most of the country and are great for edible landscaping. They are pest-resistant, and most don't even need pruning. Most importantly, they're truly delectable.
Medlar (Mespilus germanica)
Medlars aren't the most attractive fruits, but their flavor is supreme, resembling rich applesauce laced with spices and wine. The handsome, small tree bears large white or slightly pink blossoms that open late, without the need for cross-pollination. The trees are quick to bear, often doing so the year after planting. Harvest is in autumn, at which time the 1 1/2- to 2 1/2-inch fruits are brought inside to soften for two to eight weeks, depending on temperature, before being eaten. Medlars are virtually pest-free and require little or no pruning. They were very popular during the Middle Ages.
Beach Plum (Prunus maritima)
Beach plums are not just for beaches, and not just for jelly. These fruits are cherry-sized with a plum-like flavor that makes them tasty as a fresh-off-the-branch snack. Fruit color ranges from purple to deep blue, red and even yellow; the lighter the color, the less tannin in the taste. I grow beach plum selections that are as tasty as conventional plums, except that they are smaller and ripen in late summer. The plants are shrubby and pest-resistant. Cross-pollination is needed and bearing is somewhat erratic, but every spring the branches are full of small white blossoms, followed by the dangling ripe fruits, profuse enough to put on a show of their own.
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)
Also called the "poor man's banana," pawpaws tolerate cold to below minus 25 degrees. The large leaves turn a clear yellow in autumn. Spring's purple flowers precede 4- to 5-inch fruits that hang in bunches like bananas. Within the pawpaw's greenish-yellow skin, which becomes speckled and streaked with brown when ripe, is a creamy-white, custardy flesh. The flavor is similar to bananas with vanilla custard, pineapple and mango mixed in. Plant at least two different varieties for cross-pollination. Pawpaws ripen in late summer and fall. "Pennsylvania Golden" and "Zimmerman" are two good varieties.
Juneberries (Amelanchier spp.)
Ripening in late June, juneberry fruits resemble blueberries, to which they are often compared. The best juneberries are juicy and sweet, with the richness of sweet cherry with a hint of almond. These self-fertile trees and bushes are not finicky about soil and are year-round beauties. Early spring brings clouds of white blossoms, and summer brings soft, green leaves that in autumn burst into shades of purple, orange and yellow. The striated, gray bark and the neat form of the plants make them ornamental through winter, too.
Che (Cudrania tricuspidata)
Meld together all the characteristics of fresh figs and mulberries — both relatives of che — and you end up with something close to a che fruit. Che is a round fruit, 1 to 1 1/2 inches across. It has a maroon skin with a rich red interior, a slightly chewy texture and a few edible seeds. The flavor is most definitely fresh fig plus mulberry, but not as rich as the fig nor as sweet as the mulberry. This mostly self-fertile, small tree tolerates almost any soil as long as it has sun, and it flowers late enough not to be bothered by spring frosts. It's also quick to bear, mine yielded its first fruits the year after planting. Leaves of this plant have been used in China to feed silkworms, to produce a silk for lute strings, which make sounds of particular clarity.
Shipova (Sorbopyrus auricularis)
This hybrid of mountain ash and pear retains the best of its parents. With fat, woolly buds, this large, self-fertile tree resembles the magnolia in winter. Come spring, it's bedecked with big clusters of white blossoms and downy-white leaves. A close flavor comparison would be with a pear. The buttery flesh — a bit more meaty than a pear — melts with each bite to fill the mouth with semi-solid, sweet and fragrant ambrosia. The tree takes a number of years to begin bearing, but needs little pruning or other care. The fruits are about 2 inches in diameter when fully mature.
Raisin Tree (Hovenia dulcis)
When you eat from the raisin tree, you bypass the dark, dry, pea-sized fruit itself to nibble instead on the fruit stalks. Unlike other fruits, whose stalks remain gracefully thin, the raisin tree's stalks swells into gnarled, meaty masses. They're small but borne in massive quantities at the ends of the twigs, and they taste more like candied walnuts than raisins. This self-fruiting tree resembles linden and needs little in the way of care. The "fruit" ripens in autumn; don't rush the harvest, though, or the stalks will taste like nothing more than stems.
American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)
A thoroughly ripened persimmon is a fruit of the gods (which is what the botanical name means). To get fruit from most varieties, you need a separate male tree, but the variety "Szukis" will bear without cross-pollination. The best-tasting persimmons are like wet dried-apricots drizzled in honey. The tree leafs out late, but the leaves look as healthy and as fresh all summer as they do in spring. Orange fruits cling to the leafless branches like edible Christmas ornaments until December. Make sure to plant a variety that both ripens during your growing season and is known to taste good.
Uncommon Fruit Sources
Burnt Ridge Nursery 432 Burnt Ridge Road Onalaska, WA 98570
Edible Landscaping 361 Spirit Ridge Lane Afton, VA 22920
Forestfarm 990 Tetherow Road Williams, OR 97544-9599
Hidden Springs Nursery 170 Hidden Springs Lane Cookeville, TN 38501
Nolin River Nut Tree Nursery 797 Port Wooden Road Upton, KY 42784
Oikos Tree Crops P.O. Box 19425 Kalamazoo, MI 49019-0425
Northwoods Nursery/ One Green World 28696 South Cramer Road Molalla, OR 97038-8576
Peterson Pawpaws (Pawpaw seeds and plants) P.O. Box 1011 Harpers Ferry, WV 25425
Raintree Nursery 391 Butts Road Morton, WA 98356
Uncommon Fruits author Lee Reich, who gardens in New Paltz, N.Y., has researched fruits for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Cornell University. The new edition of his book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden has just been released. He also authored Weedless Gardening, one of the most popular books we offer.